LOS ANGELES // Phil Jackson knows the story by heart, even if his players only seem interested in the last two chapters. The Los Angeles coach is steeped in the history of professional basketball's most compelling rivalry, familiar with every twist in the Boston Celtics' half-century of championship clashes with the Lakers.
The NBA's most decorated franchises have battled through heartbreaks, high stakes and neck-aches while forging a true sports rivalry, that rarest of commodities in the age of free agency. Jackson does not mind that almost everybody playing in the franchises' 12th NBA finals meeting, starting tonight in Los Angeles, does not have much of a grasp on the history sewn into the uniforms they wear. So what if Ron Artest claims total ignorance of the Lakers' past, or if Kobe Bryant says he could not care less who Los Angeles played? So what if the deep-seated hatred between the franchises' fans does not seem to be truly savoured by nearly anybody except Paul Pierce, the Los Angeles native turned Celtics star?
When asked why the kids these days just don't get it, Jackson smirks and nimbly sidesteps the trap set for grumpy old men and history buffs. "That rivalry is renewed ... it seems like every 20 years, and now here it is," Jackson said. "This is our second time going back at them. It's one that I think piques the interest of the fans of basketball." Notice he did not mention the players' interest. In the age of easy team-swapping, US$100 million (Dh305.7m) contracts and off-season parties with bitter in-season opponents, there is not much actual malice to be found between these Lakers and these Celtics.
"It's not a personal thing," Kevin Garnett, the Celtics forward, said before Boston practised at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on Tuesday. "They're a great team, we're a great team. We're both trying to get to the same goal." The clubs are meeting in the finals for the second time in three seasons, and the winner will walk away with the franchises' 33rd combined championship. That is more than half of the titles in NBA history.
Yet this 21st-century confluence of Boston's Big Three era and Bryant's career zenith still has not reached the frequency and ferocity of the rivalry's early years. They met seven times in 11 seasons from 1959 to 1969 - and the Celtics won every time, led by Bill Russell, their coach Red Auerbach and whatever leprechaun pushed Frank Selvy's late jumper off the rim in Game 7 of the 1962 finals, allowing Boston to win in overtime. "It seems like most of the '60s, the Lakers were playing the Celtics, and they were never able to get by them," Jackson said.
"That was a long and arduous period of time for these fans." Pierce grew up in Inglewood near the Lakers' former neighbourhood, and he heard the story about the balloons. He knows the Lakers were favourites against the Celtics in 1968 and again in 1969, but Boston twice rallied to beat Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, forlornly stranding thousands of celebratory balloons in the rafters of the Forum.
"We've definitely got two franchises that never really liked each other because they were always playing for the ultimate prize," said Pierce, the 2008 finals MVP. "You can definitely sense that, and I already knew that growing up here." Bryant, burrowed deep into his play-off tunnel, professes not to care about the rivalry, even when a victory might fulfil West's prediction that he will go down as the greatest player to wear the Lakers' uniform. "I'm playing in it. I don't give a damn about it," Bryant said. "That's for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning."
Yet it is tough to believe Bryant: he also has said his NBA education during his youth in Italy largely consisted of watching Lakers-Celtics games, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird clashed three times in four seasons. Other Lakers are not excited about playing the Boston franchise so much as they are thrilled for a chance at revenge on these particular Celtics, most of whom sent the Lakers home from the finals in 2008. Andrew Bynum, the centre who was injured for that series, could not resist talking up a Boston re-match even while the Lakers were in the thick of a tough Western Conference finals against Phoenix.
These Lakers don't remember Game 4 of the 1984 series, when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis before Cedric Maxwell mimed a choking motion at James Worthy during a key game in perhaps the most fascinating finals in NBA history, an era-defining showcase of the Magic-Bird rivalry. No, they remember June 2008, when the celebrating Celtics fans punctuated their team's 39-point victory in the clincher by throwing rocks at Los Angeles' bus. Leave it to Pau Gasol, the Lakers' cultured Spanish forward, in his third consecutive NBA finals, to find a common ground between the importance of this franchise's history and the immediacy of winning one last play-off series in an eight-month grind of a modern season. "The history just makes it a little more exciting than it already is," Gasol said. "It's a match-up that a lot of people want to see. The history is exciting, and there's a lot of - you could say hate - between the teams, crowds and fans and stuff, but we try to be above that a little bit, and try not to let that affect our minds. "Obviously it's motivating, but you still want to win the finals and championship no matter who it's against. But obviously it will taste better, to be honest, than what we went through in 2008." * AP
Game 1: Tonight at Los Angeles Game 2: Sunday at Los Angeles Game 3: June 8 at Boston Game 4: June 10 at Boston Game 5: June 13 at Boston* Game 6: June 15 at Los Angeles* Game 7: June 17 at Los Angeles* * if necessary
Centre Andrew Bynum (LA) v Kendrick Perkins (Boston) The Lakers missed Bynum two years ago against the Celtics in the finals, when he was injured. He still has knee problems that have limited his playing time. Perkins, above, will look forward to an easier assignment after going against Dwight Howard in the last round. Edge: Even Power forward Pau Gasol v Kevin Garnett This match-up could swing the series. Garnett had the better of it two years ago, but Gasol is tougher now and is having a terrific post-season. Garnett scored at least 18 points in every game against Cleveland, then managed more than 10 only once against Orlando. Edge: Lakers Small forward Ron Artest v Paul Pierce Artest takes some bad shots, but that will be forgiven if he can defend Pierce. Pierce's offence is back on track after he had to concentrate on defending LeBron James in the East semis. Edge: Celtics Shooting guard Kobe Bryant v Ray Allen Bryant averaged 33.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the West finals. Allen, still one of the NBA's best shooters, scored 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting in Boston's regular-season victory over Los Angeles. Edge: Lakers Point guard Derek Fisher v Rajon Rondo Rondo has played well this post-season but has taken a lot of bumps. Still, his athleticism gives Boston the edge in this match-up. Fisher still can be counted on to hit a big shot, as he did in Game 4 of last year's finals. Edge: Celtics